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OAC Hosts Intensive Seminar on Rand’s Epistemology Treatise

Young philosophy PhDs and grad students gather to examine Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology with expert guidance.

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As the Ayn Rand Institute continues to expand its educational programs, we look for ways to cultivate the growing number of philosophy students and young professionals in our ranks. To this end, we recently organized an intensive summer seminar on one of Ayn Rand’s most important philosophic treatises.

Ayn Rand named her philosophy “Objectivism” after her distinctive concept of objectivity, her idea that human knowledge is a product of a definite fact-based method. She first formulated her view of the principles of objective knowledge in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, where she laid down her theory of the fundamentals of concept-formation.

That makes ITOE the key to understanding Rand’s entire philosophy, and a suitable subject for a graduate-level seminar.

For forty-four hours over the course of ten weeks, ITOE was studied chapter by chapter by four recent philosophy PhDs, seven graduate students, and one undergraduate. Seven of these were current ARI junior fellows. They read not only ITOE but also a raft of secondary literature, submitting regular write-ups about their key takeaways and questions about the readings.

Fielding these questions — and sometimes challenging the premises behind them — were Objectivist epistemologists Harry Binswanger and Greg Salmieri, the authors of some of the same secondary texts assigned in the class. Assisting them were ARI senior fellow Onkar Ghate and this author (who also helped coordinate the course). About a dozen veteran philosophy PhDs and experts in cognate fields audited the ensuing conversation.

“While listening to recorded lectures and reading is a crucial step in understanding Objectivism, it is difficult to reach mastery of the material without expert guidance as difficult and complex questions arise.”

This in-depth, highly interactive approach to philosophy is a hallmark of the Objectivist Academic Center. One student who appreciated this approach was Tristan de Liège, a newly minted PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside: “While listening to recorded lectures and reading is a crucial step in understanding Objectivism, it is difficult to reach mastery of the material without expert guidance as difficult and complex questions arise.”

The seminar’s approach benefited not only the graded students but also the auditors from outside philosophy. Chad Mills, a natural-language programmer with a PhD in computational linguistics, described it this way: “Having philosophy students come up with questions has exposed me to a deeper level of concerns that in many cases I wouldn’t have even thought to ask myself. The discussions have exposed me indirectly to other (contrasting) perspectives on these issues that I don’t think there would be any reasonable-effort way for me to get otherwise.”

The seminar was not without its challenges. Some effort was needed to balance students’ need to explore ideas freely against senior experts’ need to clear up confusions. The seminar evolved through several different formats until a good balance was achieved. We intend to use a similar model in future graduate-level seminars.

Tara Smith — member of ARI’s board of directors, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, and regular participant in the seminar — remarked on the value she gained: “I seized it as a great opportunity to read the book again, to benefit from the thoughts of the other scholars participating, to enjoy the intellectual camaraderie of a seminar, and as a chance to gain more firsthand impressions of some of our senior OAC philosophy students. On all counts, it delivered.”

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To see an example of how the seminar produced intellectual synergy among its attendees, check out this ten-minute clip from the discussion of chapter 6, Rand’s analysis of axiomatic concepts:

Fans of Ayn Rand may be aware that she identified axioms of philosophy such as “existence exists.” Rand’s theory of concept-formation encompasses the most abstract concepts involved in these axioms. In the excerpt, Harry Binswanger raises a challenging methodological question about this chapter’s significance, and students respond. Other instructors build on their answers, and Dr. Binswanger closes the segment with final reflections.

The ITOE seminar is one part of ARI’s aggressive expansion of graduate-level offerings in the Objectivist Academic Center. It’s a sample of what the OAC’s current undergraduate students can look forward to if they advance on the path toward an intellectual career. And it’s all thanks to ARI’s generous donors.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. Ben is an associate editor of New Ideal.

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